Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order Thursday committing $1 billion more in state money to Everglades restoration and water resource protection, creating the Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency, and establishing a Blue-Green Algae Task Force.
With one stroke of his pen, DeSantis in his first week “has done more to address Florida’s water quality crisis than (former) Gov. Rick Scott did in eight years,” Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone said.
DeSantis, who calls himself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” was critical of Big Sugar during the campaign and vowed to make red tide and the blue-green toxic algae flowing from Lake Okeechobee as top state economic priorities.
“I pledged I would take action, and today I’m taking action,” he said during a press conference at Florida Gulf Coast University in Bonita Springs.
DeSantis’ executive order, called ‘Achieving More Now For Florida’s Environment,’ earmarks $2.5 billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration and water resource protection, $1 billion more than what the state spent over the last four years.
The order creates the Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency and the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection, both within the Department of Environmental Protection, a Blue-Green Algae Task Force to find the “sound science” solutions to red tide and toxic algae flowing from Lake Okeechobee and the appointment of a Chief Science Officer.
DeSantis’ order directs the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to re-establish a matching grant program to accelerate septic tank conversion as part of a plan discussed Wednesday by the Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee.
The funding boost in DeSantis’ four-year $2.5 billion plan, which will tap into the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund among other sources, will require annual legislative approvals.
Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said in statement she was “encouraged” by DeSantis’ “first steps” to address the state’s water problems and praised his “lofty goals” and “admirable pursuits,” but said she needs details on where the $2.5 billion will come from.
“Will he turn to the Trump administration? Or will he be seeking help from the Legislature?” Gibson asked. “Can our state budget handle this increase? Is the plan to cut into other programs to raise the needed funds? Will Floridians lose services in one area to offset the costs for water cleanup?”
Gibson also questioned the proposed septic-tank conversion plan for not being clear on how much homeowners who are included in septic conversion projects will need to pay.
DeSantis also instructed the South Florida Water Management District (SwiftMud) to “immediately” begin the next phase of the $1.6 billion Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.
He then called for the resignations of all seven SwiftMud Governing Board members for granting Florida Crystals an extension of its nearly $1 million-a-year lease to grow sugar on the 16,000 acres where the planned EAA Reservoir will be built.
DeSantis said his call for resignations is in response to U.S. Rep. Brian Mast’s demand the seven board members be removed since they approved the lease extension in November.
"One of the recommendations that Congressman Mast has provided to me was that we really need a fresh start at the South Florida Water Management District, and so today I have sent correspondence to all of the board members, thanking them for their service but requesting their resignation,” DeSantis said.
Mast, a Palm City Republican, served with DeSantis in Congress and was the chairman of DeSantis’ Transition Advisory Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources & Agriculture.
“For far too long the South Florida Water Management District has been more accountable to special interests than to the people of Florida,” Mast said in a statement Thursday. “That changes today, and I look forward to continuing to work with Gov. DeSantis to find replacements who make our waterways and environment the number one priority.”
Three board members’ terms expire in March, two expire in 2020 and two in 2022. All were appointed by Scott, but none are among the 84 midnight appointments he issued during his last four days in Tallahassee.